COVID-19 has revealed many flaws in our society. Among the most important has been the pernicious influence of the teacher union leadership in the world of government-operated K-12 public schools. It’s not a pretty picture.

The egregious actions of teachers unions during the pandemic have backfired. And parents across the country have counterpunched, leading to greater educational opportunities for children that reach beyond the government school system.

The pandemic exposed what education reformers have known and experienced for decades: the teacher unions have a self-serving command over K-12 education that puts them first and always, not children. This control stems from the political power of the unions over elected officials, who determine education policy and funding.

The teachers union leaders were quick to exploit the pandemic for their own selfish ends, beyond reason or science and over the welfare of children. Examples abound.

Teachers unions demanded school closures throughout the country, well beyond the time it was prudent or seemed scientifically warranted. Studies and data have shown that children are not vulnerable to the coronavirus absent comorbidities and are not major spreaders of the virus. Fewer children in fact have died from COVID-19 than from pneumonia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On the other hand, studies keep showing that children are suffering from the absence of school, not merely from learning loss, but psychologically.

Ironically, though, the push for school closures was an insult to their members — an admission that they were not “essential workers.” But in truth, teachers are on par with law enforcement, medicine, emergency rescue, transport, and grocery workers to sustain a functioning society.

Teachers unions also managed to extract more than $190 billion in federal education funding for K-12 government schools, even with more than 100,000 closed, affecting 50 million students nationwide. The unions successfully resisted tying any of this new funding to school reopenings.

Another irony was that as parents had to grapple with being home with their children during remote learning, they found out so much more about the curriculum content, including but hardly limited to the toxic racialist ideology known as critical race theory. The collective ripple effect of the teachers union exploitation of the pandemic and the negative effect on schoolchildren has led to a boomerang effect of parents across the country demanding alternatives.

An estimated 1.5 million students have fled K-12 government school districts, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, a 3% decline year-over-year in 2020-21.

Meanwhile, the homeschooling population has doubled in a year, according to the Census Bureau. Catholic school enrollment also has increased in dioceses from Boston to Seattle. Charter school enrollment grew by 7% in the 2020-21 school year.

Many state legislatures and governors also have responded to parents. Twenty states in the past year either expanded existing programs for educational alternatives to government schools or created new ones.

West Virginia created individual education savings accounts worth up to $4,600 for expenses including private school tuition for which 90% of families in the state are eligible, Ohio created a new tax credit scholarship program for children to use at independent and religious schools, and Georgia expanded its special needs student voucher program, to name a few.

These growing educational opportunities have not gone unnoticed — by the teachers unions. Perhaps realizing their overreach, they’re resorting to gaslighting to rewrite the history of their insidious role in keeping schools closed, even lobbying the CDC to such effect. A recent puff piece by the New York Times on Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, claimed that she was “trying to get schools open.”

Parents have shown in the last year that they do not have to accept their children’s educational interests as secondary to teacher unions.

Parental activism resulted in all three statewide offices in Virginia changing political parties in the November 2021 election, with the winning candidates espousing educational reform and parental rights over the union-backed candidates. As mentioned, many states are expanding alternatives for children beyond government schools.

Congress can do much more than shovel unaccountable education dollars to states. As with the enactment of civil rights legislation two generations ago, Congress can ensure the civil right of every student to access quality education in the setting chosen by their parents or guardians. This is especially needed in states where too many elected officials remain in the political vise grip of the teachers unions and resist change.

A national effort to expand educational freedom is needed to enable more children to access school options that best meet their educational and social needs and are consistent with the values taught at home.

Peter Murphy is vice president of the Invest in Education Coalition.